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The Dervish House
Ian McDonald
Gollancz / Pyr, 576 / 359 pages

The Dervish House
The Dervish House
Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald was born in 1960 in Manchester and moved to Northern Ireland in 1965. At present, he lives in Belfast with his wife, Patricia. His debut was the short story, The Island of the Dead, in the British magazine, Extro. His work has won the Philip K. Dick Award for best original SF paperback, the Locus poll for best first novel, and several nominations for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Cyberabad Days
SF Site Review: Cyberabad Days
SF Site Review: Brasyl
SF Site Review: Ares Express
SF Site Review: Sacrifice of Fools
SF Site Reading List: Ian McDonald

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

A bird turns in the thermals rising from a sprawling, clangorous waterfront city, spread so far below that the details of its inhabitants cannot be seen.

I do not know if Ian McDonald has read John Dos Passos's 1925 novel, Manhattan Transfer, but both writers chose exactly the same image to open their novels, and to exactly the same effect. The remote, aerial viewpoint is distancing and depersonalizing: the individuals rushing about below are, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant, just cogs in the vast, impersonal machine that is the city. But when Dos Passos circles down to street level, the first thing we see is a birth and the eventual result for most of his characters is misery; when McDonald circles down to ground level, the first thing we see is a death and most characters are heading for a happy ending (though not the happiness most of them are likely to have imagined or chosen).

One other thing the birds betoken is pace. We are not in media res, we are outside looking in; this is not a promise of instant action, breathless speed. Indeed, both novels build slowly, cumulatively, you need patience to begin with, until your immersion in the life of the city becomes so total that it is difficult to give it up. For both are kaleidoscopic novels, shifting restlessly between a large cast of characters, fragmented stories breaking up and recombining all the time. This is, of course, a technique that McDonald has used before, most notably in River of Gods (2004), but even that novel didn't quite capture the insistent urban pulse that provides the rhythm for The Dervish House.

Of course, we cannot draw too close a comparison between McDonald and Dos Passos, there are significant differences. For a start, Dos Passos's loosely structured drift through the first quarter of the twentieth century is replaced by a very tight focus upon just seven days in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. And where the characters in Manhattan Transfer are of the moment, without past or future; those in The Dervish House inhabit our future but are haunted by the past. In fact, this is a science fiction novel about the past.

The setting is Istanbul just a few years from now when Turkey has finally joined the European Union. Apart from one very brief interlude, we do not leave the city during the novel's present. Everything that happens does so in a context of traffic jams, narrow streets, the noisy press of people, and the oppressive weight of a summer heat that will not break. There is an ever-present sense of being hemmed in, of events always on the point of spiraling out of control. This is easily the most urban novel McDonald has so far written.

It is the near future, some of the characters routinely use nanoware performance-enhancing drugs, one character has a multi-function robot toy that is going to be on the wish-list for just about every reader, and one of the least well developed subplots concerns a new advance in nano-technology. These are more than sufficient to identify this as a science fiction novel, but they are (with the possible exception of the robot toy) the least interesting and the least important aspects of the novel.

What is of interest is the past, because it is the past that drives the actions of nearly all the central characters. We start with a death, a suicide bomber on a crowded tram, but an attack that curiously has no victims other than the bomber. The ramifications of that attack will stretch out across the whole city, but we watch it principally through half a dozen characters whose lives revolve around an old dervish house in a run-down and unfashionable quarter of the city.

Necdet is actually on the tram, he sees the bomber's beatific expression as she activates the device. Following the attack, he starts to see djinns and saints until he finds himself turning, against his will, into an Islamic holy man. But the visions also prompt memories of the horrific death of a member of his family, a death he was responsible for while out of his mind on drugs. It was this that first sent him fleeing to Istanbul, but it is this, also, that prompts the way he now starts to behave.

Can witnesses the aftermath of the bombing through the eyes of his BitBots that can take on the form of bird, rat, snake or monkey at will. Can is a nine-year-old boy with a heart defect, and perhaps because he is the only character who may have no future, he is also the only one not guided by the past. Through the eyes of his monkey, Can spots another robot device spying on the aftermath of the bombing, which leads him to play boy detective as he tries to unravel the increasingly complex and threatening secrets behind the attack.

Can shares his discoveries with Georgios, the old Greek who has befriended him and who adapted the robot toy. Georgios is a former professor whose university career was held back by a combination of jealousy, his nationality, and his radical past. Now he spends his days with other old Greeks in the coffee house across from the dervish house, until he is unexpectedly invited to join a strange think tank being set up by his old academic rival. And at the same time, the love of his life returns to Istanbul after years of exile in Greece, and he must confront the betrayal that ended his involvement in radical politics.

Leyla, who also lives in the dervish house, is caught up in the traffic chaos following the bomb, which causes her to miss a job interview. As a result she ends up working for a nanoware start-up company run by a relative, which means involvement once more with the family and the past from which she is trying to distance herself. Her quest for funding for the start-up will, in turn, shortly bring her into contact with one of the biggest financial institutions in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, Ayse owns a specialist antique shop near the dervish house, when she is commissioned to find a Mellified Man, someone who was reputedly mummified in honey. At first she is convinced that this is a wild goose chase, but she sets out nevertheless and gradually finds herself drawn into the secret history of Istanbul. Her journeys and encounters among nutters and historians form one of the most lyrical and fascinating threads through this novel.

Ayse's boyfriend, Adnan, is a trader in the commodities market at the big financial institution that Leyla will eventually become involved with. But Adnan has bigger plans, with three colleagues he is planning a massive fraud involving Iranian gas, a commodity banned in the West since a major nuclear accident in Iran. This financial coup has its origin's in Adnan's military service, and also in his teenage years on the Turkish coast. Indeed, Adnan is perhaps the most modern of the characters in the novel, and the one most in hock to his past. The unwinding of this plot, which in many ways provides the narrative core of the novel, also gives us the major theme of the book.

The future, and nanotechnology, are just window-dressing: this is a story about economics. The workings of markets, the power of economic influence, inform every aspect of the novel. Turkey's new role within the European community is one of the drivers of the plot. Along the way we find that Necdet works in a post-disaster centre for businesses; Georgios was a professor of economics; Leyla is a business manager; Ayse is intimately involved with the buying and selling of national treasures; Adnan's complex trading plans bring him into contact with powerful players in the black economy. Everything comes down to the need to make a deal, the impulse to trade.

Just as Istanbul is the point where Europe and Asia, Christian West and Islamic East, rub up against each other, so too in this novel it becomes the inevitable point where past and future collide. And the grit being rubbed between them is money.

The Dervish House builds on the complex, multi-layered narratives that McDonald has already produced in River of Gods and Brasyl (2007). Like them, the very richness of the bustling world, the differing ways in which a range of characters intersect with the world, makes for a convincing portrait of the near future. In both those earlier novels, the past is the foundation upon which the future has been built, but the new novel goes further, because here the past is inescapable and the future perhaps unreachable. You feel that ten or so years from now, Istanbul could be just the way it is described here. The most important thing, though, is that as a kaleidoscopic portrait of that place at that time, The Dervish House is a very fine, very powerful novel indeed.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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